A Magical Kingdom is Here!

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It’s summer vacation and Lizzy is eager to take a trip to visit her grandparents at their beautiful home in the countryside where all kinds of fun can be had!

One morning, Lizzy’s grandma offers her an exciting book to read. Hopping on her bike with the book and a picnic lunch, she settles down by a beautiful pond to begin reading the adventure.

After reading the first lines of the book, things are not as they should be. The pond is now a vast lake, and in the middle of it sits a magnificent castle! There’s also an oddly dressed woman who’s come looking for her. She looks like she’s just stepped out of the Renaissance! Her name is Milda, and she beckons ‘Princess Lizbeth’ to hurry, for she is expected at the castle.

Join Lizzy as she travels back in time to a magical kingdom and becomes a princess for a day! 

Available here on Amazon! Also available on Amazon Europe!

A Very Special Announcement

Hello dear friends! I have a very special announcement! Stop into my hobbit house while I tell you a tale…

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Once upon a time, there was an Author and an Artist who loved to weave tales of magic and mystery with their words and with enchanting images upon paper and canvas…

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Every summer, they hopped in their carriage and rode off to the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Kenosha, Wisconsin where a magical festival was always to be found, and where many amazing merchants dazzled the merrymakers with their incredible crafts. The Author and Artist were inspired, hoping that one day they too might share their books, crafts and art, on a delightful festival day in Bristol…

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In the meanwhile, the Author and Artist went on a great many adventures and wrote down the tales and drew the characters that they met along the way. There were dragons and fairies, elves and queens, princesses and enchanted forests, will-o’-the-wisps, knights and mermaids too! They soon had a delightful collection to share…

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With that, I am incredibly excited to announce that the works of this Author and Artist, Michelle and Lita, will be a part of the 2016 Bristol Renaissance Faire market place! Weekends only, July 9th through Labor Day Monday, September 5th!

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You’ll find our magical tented shop on King’s Landing (look for this lane on the faire map…it’s close to the front gate), where we hope to bring joy to readers and amuse all with whimsical art and other delights! We can’t wait to see you there! More updates to come, please share the news!

In A Tizzy For Tulips

Something very valuable just bloomed in my front yard. Or at least, if it was the year 1637 and I was living in the Netherlands…

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If I had a time machine, I’d snatch my tulips and zoom back in time. Riches would await me, and you’d see me sumptuously dressed and painted into one of the scenes on Rembrandt’s canvases…

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…for once upon a time during the 17th century, during the Dutch Golden Age (when Dutch achievements and advancements were making them the rockstars of Europe), there was a bizarre economic bubble.

Economic bubble: When you’re selling something worth a small sum for a lot of cash. Eventually the situation gets out of control, there is a crash, and everyone is financially ruined.

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At the height of what history has now coined tulip mania, some of these precious tulip bulbs were being sold for what it would take most regular folks to make in ten years. What?! Yes, a single tulip bulb in exchange for what you earned in a decade.

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Once when I was living in New York City, in the early evening in the spring, I spied a man stealing tulips planted by the city along the sidewalk. I was looking out over my balcony and had a clear view.

In the darkening light of dusk, the man physically laid down along the sides of parked cars when other pedestrians happened to walk by. He was hiding. When they had passed, he’d pop back up and clip some more tulips. He had quite the bouquet before making a run for it. I was both speechless and amused. And really grossed out; you do not want to lay down on a New York City sidewalk.

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Perhaps the man was Dutch and from the 17th century. He’d hopped into a time machine to zoom ahead in time to steal his fortune.

Tulip mania. Proof that real life is stranger than fiction.

Pretty As A Picture

These photos are of my cousin, who is some years younger than I (though now a young woman). Lita (my mother, artist & costumer) made this Elizabethan gown for her for an outing at the Bristol Renaissance Faire.

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This little lady was so patient (in quite warm weather and having never worn a full costume before), and so polite (walking here and there with grace), and so pretty! I don’t know how she did it; when I was her age (and well beyond it) I fussed a great deal with my costumes (squawking when something didn’t fit) and romped around like a wild thing on the run (hardly graceful). She was a natural! A true noble!

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The headpiece was spectacularly stitched with pearls lining the top and a veil hanging from the back. The white and green color combination smiled upon youth and innocence. The entire silhouette was perfect, with a crisp bodice and perfectly measured skirts over just the right size of farthingale. Such a well crafted costume!

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And look at that pretty smile, the perfect accessory for such an ensemble!

I think kiddos make the best historical reenactors; mini nobles and peasants, awesome! They make the reenacting of history more authentic. For instance, it is ever obvious when adults are acting in their costumes (as much as they try to be a merchant or lady-in-waiting, etc.). But when children are dressed up and start playing, talking and running, they forget that they are in costume and just behave naturally (just being, not acting).

My cousin was a lovely addition that day, and certainly convinced all that she was a noble young lady from the days of yore!

Fur For Fleas

It’s fun to be wrong, at least when it comes to research. It allows you to be surprised, delighted and to learn new things!

Having always loved history, costuming and even participating in Renaissance re-enactment, there were ‘facts’ that I’ve never questioned. Learned people told me so, and I’d read so, so it must be true! Well that isn’t always the case. Take the flea fur…

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Oh heavens, look at those pearls! I digress. (If you love pearls as much as I do, don’t forget about Inspired by Venice‘s pearl earrings giveaway!)

Above is Isabella de’Medici (Italian), from 1558. At her side, you can see a special accessory. It is a zibellino or flea fur, adorned with gems.

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And here is Bianca Ponzoni Anguissola (Italian), 1557. She too has a flea fur, gilded, a head of gold, gems for eyes.

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And here, a flea fur at the collar of this woman (England, mid-1500’s).

You can find many, many portraits of nobles and their flea furs. Of course, people have been wearing furs for forever. But this particular way of wearing them (perhaps for looks, and displaying their riches) is noticed starting in the mid-late 1400’s.

I had always read, and been told, that the flea fur also had a practical purpose. It was to attract biting fleas from off of bodies. Even nobles crawled with fleas, money meant nothing when these creatures infested bedding, infrequently washed clothing, pets, etc. Nobles were said to place these furs on their person, so that the fleas would gather on the fur and then they could shake them, or beat them out.

Makes sense, only, it isn’t true. It was first surmised that this was the purpose for the pelts in the 1890’s, though no evidence has shown that the flea fur was anything but an accessory.

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Another noble lady holding her fur, Italy 1515. It’s fascinating how easily fiction becomes fact, this particular one developing in the late 19th century, and still a misdirected belief today. It reminds me to be careful to not take what people write or say, to be truth (even though in this case, I want to believe it!). Flea furs, held in the hand, hanging from the waist, laying over the shoulder, pinned to the breast, were just a vain display.

Oh well. I can still imagine this noble lady, frustrated with fleas, running outside to fling her flea fur about. Fiction perhaps, but amusing!

Pearl Earrings Giveaway Part III.

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First an excerpt from Veleno…a terrible tale, soon to come!

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Standing before her, he held out a large mollusk, far more generous in size than the ones they regularly ate. It was a fine catch, a basket of those would fetch an excellent price, especially on a feast day when the noble houses were entertaining guests and wanted to impress. Pulling a sharp knife from his belt, he sliced between the shells and carefully pried the animal open, discarding the top of the creature’s case to a table. Skilled, he swiftly cut beneath the meat and detached its membrane to make it easier to consume. He smiled once more and carefully handed over the plump, briny offering. Mafalda was embarrassed, the oyster was rather big and she felt hesitant to swallow it before Baldovino. Oysters were said to cause passions in the eaters; she was certain he knew that. As well he stood closely enough that she swore she could feel the heat radiating from his body, though it could have just been the kitchen blaze. He watched her expectantly, almost eagerly, standing tall enough to look over her. She wanted to move away, but only far enough so that she could spy on this man unnoticed; he was very desirable. He wiped the knife in his alternate hand upon a rag hanging at his hip and slipped it back into his belt.

Tentatively accepting the halved shell, the size of which completely engulfed her hand, she looked meekly up at Baldovino and then slowly brought the shell closer to her lips. Just as she was about to tilt the creature’s vessel up to slide the oyster into her mouth, he whispered for her to wait. She paused short and her eyes grew large. She began to blush. Why had he stopped her? She didn’t want to prolong this. Martinella would be back soon, or Tonia might catch an eyeful of the two and Mafalda felt that the man was standing too close, too familiarly. Carefully taking back the shell from her, he again pulled out his knife and scrapped gingerly at the flesh, quickly exposing a large and glistening white orb. It was a pearl, a very large pearl.

Today’s the day, the day for a pearl earrings giveaway! As you know, I’m nuts about pearls! Renaissance Venetians were too, such as the noble lady Mafalda in my soon to come Veleno…one terrible tale! You can check out Inspired by Venice‘s past pearl giveaways here and here.

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These delightful fresh water pearls are drop shaped, and white-yellow-peach depending on the light. Dainty and so lovely! These sweet earrings are by Brenda Duncan of The Black Pearl, purchased at the Bristol Renaissance Faire!

To enter the giveaway, get your imaginations brewing and write a sentence or two to describe what happened next after the pearl was discovered in Veleno‘s excerpt above. Write it in the comments! Does Mafalda gasp and greedily snatch the pearl right out of the oyster? Does Baldovino get called away, leaving the gift on the table for her to discretely take? Does she tell him she prefers diamonds? Does a kitchen maid accidentally spill something on them both, tripping as she walks by, and they all laugh? Be funny, or romantic (keep it classy), silly or serious…it’s for fun!

I’ll choose a winner at random from the entries, one week from today (on Monday, March 7th, 2016 at 9:00am Chicago time) and will announce the winner here! Please share news of the giveaway; the more fun entries there are, the merrier for all!

Here’s to smiles and laughs, good stories, and pearls of happiness in each and every day! Enjoy your adventure today!

Always A Lady

I had this dress on my mind today, remembering when I was but a youth. I was about 13 years old here, but I recall this dress like it was yesterday. I don’t want to make the other gowns jealous…but it’s my favorite.

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I love that in this dress, all that was around me was exciting and I wanted to learn everything about Renaissance history.

I love that it meant time with my mom at our favorite place; the trees, the music, the costumes, and those summer grilled foods.

I love that I was wearing something that my mom made for me during the dull winter, but that when spring came and I tried it on for the first time during alterations, I had something to look forward to…summer, dressing in a costume, being dazzled by a world of courtiers, merchants and fools!

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I love how I felt: happy, healthy and alive on this single day. It teaches me to strive to take advantage of each day that I have right now. I don’t want to take anything for granted.

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I have a distinct memory from that day. A court actor in an elegant gown said, “All you need is a hoop, and then you’ll be a lady.” It was a harmless remark; noble Elizabethan ladies wore farthingales under their skirts. She meant that once my costume had a hoop, I’d look like a noble. Sadly, I didn’t understand. I wondered why I wasn’t already a lady, when I thought I was. I felt sad. Children don’t always understand what adults mean.

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I was a persistent child however, and my mother ordered me a little hoop in a tiny catalogue of historic recreation pieces. It was a big deal to send in a check and an order form, waiting for that hoop. No internet orders back then!

I had my hoop, and Lita crafted many more gowns, and with them were more hoops. And I grew up.

But remembering this dress and this day, farthingale or no, I certainly was a lady. I’m thankful for the wonderful women in my life, who set the example. They wore no hoops at all, just jeans!

Pretty in Paisley

Lita and I are known to have long, animated conversations about costumes, history, and a variety of topics that fall within. We reference period films, look at printouts of centuries old paintings and discuss costumes we’ve seen here and there. And so, for each of her creations, we have a name for it so that parts of them can be easily referenced. This one is the paisley dress.

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These images were taken when I was 16, in the backyard taking a stroll. We named it the paisley dress because of the pattern in the bodice and forepart (which in these photos is tied up the front).

For an Elizabethan dress, an ornate forepart would be seen at a downward V at the front. However, how useful to be able to tie up the overskirt to save the fine forepart from damage in inclement weather!

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This was one of her first Elizabethan gowns, and though not worn with any frequency, found its way out of doors on a number of occasions. The farthingale was slight and we were not using a bumroll, so the silhouette was natural.

I absolutely adored the flaps of fabric at the bottom of the bodice, which gave it such a crisp look. The bodice was firmly made and the fabric itself was a striking gold and maroon.

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Of course, I felt like quite the lady! Nothing better than sauntering around the yard in a gown. I’m not embarrassed to say, I’ve done it a great many times.

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Lita was making me laugh, she always does. Over the years, she’s made it difficult to keep a straight face when it was most appropriate to do so. But what is life if you don’t laugh, and often!

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I don’t think my bangs were the appropriate hairstyle for the Elizabethan period, but they sure were when I was 16! Ah, costume nostalgia…think I’ll drive over and dig through Lita’s costume room, take another twirl in the yard. Oh wait, it’s only 7 degrees outside…that stroll may have to wait!

A Little Peasant Girl

This photo is a special one for me. Though not the very first costume, it was one of the first little renaissance dresses that my mother made for me. This was taken at the Bristol Renaissance Faire when I was about eight years old.

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I, like other children who visit the festival, was fascinated with all the performances, games and shops. I couldn’t wait to go to this faire each summer, and we’d visit often during the 9 weekends that the festival is open. I remember waking up on summer Saturday mornings like it was Christmas, so excited to dress up and go to Bristol. We’d hop in my mom’s jeep and off we went, a whole day out of doors, cheered by the spectacles, the music, the sounds, the festival food.

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I was very, very happy. This was the time my excitement sparked for history, the root of where I became inspired to imagine and dream, the reason I became an insatiable reader and eventually a writer.

And though I’ve heard my mother say that her early creations were a little rough around the edges (because she was just teaching herself to sew), I’d say to all those aspiring to make costumes for your children and yourself, or in taking up any art form for that matter…imperfections don’t matter, the experience of making, your learning and the joy your creations give others, is what does.

This dress was perfect, mom.

Taking Inventory

Today I am pondering things. As I finish writing Veleno, a thought has me curious…would the 16th century characters in my novel react the same way to their things as I do with my own in the 21st century? The answer is no, which changes the way I need to write about them and their relationship with their stuff.

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There is this scene I recall in the 2003 film Girl with a Pearl Earring. The movie is an artful rendering of Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer’s life at the time when he painted Girl with a Pearl Earring in the 1660s. Now, we aren’t sure who the ‘girl’ in the painting really was, some say one of Vermeer’s 15 children. But for the film, it is portrayed in a romantic way to be one of his household servants.

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The scene that struck me entailed Vermeer’s wife Catharina discovering that her husband allowed said servant to wear her pearl earring to pose for this famous painting. Catharina freaks out in an almost animal-like breakdown before her husband. It was an uncomfortable scene that had me wondering…why would she flip out like that? Goodness woman, it’s just an earring! Your husband just borrowed it for his work, which provides your house income!

Now, the actress or director may have been simply illustrating marital jealousy. But I think they were showing us both jealousy and a historically real reaction someone may have had about their things.

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As a voracious reader of history, I’m continually discovering how precious, status bearing and sacred personal and household items were for people in previous centuries. Common sense would say that the reason for this is that you couldn’t come by more things all that easily (no chain stores offering cheap deals), and that money was harder to secure.

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The real-life Catharina during the 17th century would have had the role of manager of her house. Part of the job was to keep precise inventory of all household belongings. And there would have been far stricter rules about who could use what, many things kept locked up. She’d have been proud and serious about maintaining all boundaries. Plus, ladies of elevated social status didn’t (or legally were not permitted to) earn their own money. She’d be pretty careful with what she personally owned.

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Catharina wouldn’t have left her pearls out. She wouldn’t have had many pairs. She would have considered that pair precious and would have ensured it was kept somewhere safe. She would have cared for them, and just owning them would have been lifting to her status…after all, few people could afford pearls and owning them showed her importance.

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Though we do see plenty of wealth from history’s aristocrats, I think when we look back in time, we don’t realize how few and far between those cases of utter riches were. When you think of 15th century England, do you imagine knights, lords and ladies? The truth was that it was peasants, peasants and more peasants owning no valuable possessions at all. And even if you had more than others, you still took care of and coveted what you had because that was the culture of the time. It wasn’t just fine gems and good furniture that folks kept a careful eye on either, it was all of their things. Again and again, I trip over inventory lists in my readings. And on those lists are written even the smallest, most mundane things, whether brand-new or used. When was the last time you wrote a list like that? I never have. Why not now…

Michelle’s Inventory:

1 pair $4.99 pharmacy eyeglasses, red plastic rims, scratched in left eye.

1 orange hairbrush, used, a patch of bristles missing.

1 pink toothbrush, used.

2 pair black cotton winter gloves, used, hole in pinky on one.

1 pair brown leather boots, new.

3 decorative cheese plates, chipped.

6 copies of Venice, new.

1 wooden writing desk chair, broken legs.

Tiddo’s (the cat) Inventory:

1 catnip stuffed mouse toy, used.

2 grey cat boxes, used.

1 feather-on-a-stick toy, used.

1 window stool covered in cheetah print faux velvet fabric, used.

Now imagine I kept this list around, and routinely checked if I have what I’m supposed to have and kept my list updated. Everyone would think that I was a weirdo or miserly, or that I seriously have nothing better to do and needed to find a hobby. But in history, my lack of record-keeping would be considered lazy and I, careless for not having higher regard for my things.

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This didn’t make them miserly however, it was simply normal and good economy and often a lifesaver. Take for instance Renaissance Venice. [Noblewoman gets married and brings along a portion of wealth with her to the marriage. She cannot legally get a job to earn money. Her husband turns out to be abusive and she is granted a divorce. She can take back what she brought to the marriage and is free to keep it to live on.] This is a good example of why even the quantity of the used linen handkerchiefs she owned, mattered. It could make a difference for her survival.

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When reading Casanova’s memoirs, I was baffled to see how often he sold his personal goods to survive from one day to the next. Today, when we trot down to the pawnshop, it is interpreted as humiliating desperation. But back in Casanova’s time, you could resell your belongings for far better returns than you get for used goods today (again because the value of goods was taken more seriously), and it was common, and it was what you did. You wouldn’t throw away a soiled hanky or an undershirt the way we would today, even the worst items were sold to a rag-gatherer.

I’d bet if most of us had a conversation with even our grandparents about reuse, caring for our things, fixing our things, spending, etc., we’d see a generational juxtaposition on this topic. Now imagine the shock someone from some centuries ago, would express at our general waste. My guess is that they’d also be far more territorial over their personal possessions, and for good reason.

This last spring, I lost a gold band set with a pearl and two diamonds. I took it off to wash my hands and left it in my pocket with some tissue. I then forgot and threw away the tissue with the ring (or so is my best guess). I can see Vermeer’s wife Catharina right now. I was very disappointed, but I could see her having an epic outburst over the loss. I don’t think I could get away with that…

The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court by Anna Whitelock

Queen Elizabeth I. The Virgin Queen. She…was…fascinating. Of course, she had a spectacular stage as the Queen of England from 1558 (when she was 25 years old) to 1603 (passing at the age of 70). And, she had quite memorable parents (Henry VII with his 6 wives & the lusty Anne Boleyn). England was a very powerful nation and constantly dancing politically with every other powerful European nation, while simultaneously establishing themselves in the ‘new world’. Virginia (named for the ‘virgin’ queen) was one of Queen Elizabeth’s claims.

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Now, I’m a details sort of gal. In my writing, I like to make sure you get the picture. I want the reader to feel like they are there, by thoroughly describing the surroundings and the senses procured from them. I’ve been reading histories about Queen Elizabeth’s reign since my interest was sparked as a kid, and though sometimes eloquent, they are often just the timeline of the facts. Anna Whitelock’s The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court however, is a treasure for anyone like me, those hungry for the details!

Now, hold your horses. This is not a book about Queen Elizabeth and secret hanky-panky as the words bed and intimate imply. Remember, Elizabeth was the Virgin Queen and as far as history can tell us, she was indeed a virtuous lady for all of her days, and a woman who never married. Whitelock’s title is a metaphor for the very epicenter of power…the Queen herself and her most inaccessible and protected domain wherever she went, her bedchamber.

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Imagine an onion. You peel it in layers. Every noble estate where the Queen stayed was the same. As you get further in, accessibility becomes even more difficult…until you get to the very room where the Queen slept, and only her Ladies of the Bedchamber were allowed. But it was more than where this woman dressed, ate and bathed…it was where her most incredible plots and plans were solidified. And when you look at the way this woman negotiated such a politically fierce world, and a very dangerous world, that room becomes the most brilliant stage of all.

Of course, Whitelock offers us a delicious entry into the intimate details of Elizabeth’s life: who attended her, what her toilette entailed, the fluctuating state of her health, her personal preferences, gifts that she received, how household accounting was figured, how much attendants were paid, insights into her personality, even the fragrances and sweets that she liked. Ah, the details…love it!!! But really, this is Whitelock’s brilliant and poetic way of helping us remember that this history, and any other, is not just timelines and the people in the story…those people were you and me, they had senses, they were human, they were real.

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This book helps us understand not just her routines, the Queen’s preferences and historic objects from the past, but also the stresses and strains put on a monarch, looming plagues and horrible diseases that we don’t even have names for today, constant assassination plots, threats of war at every turn. We understand what she feared and the fears of her people. I personally can’t believe she bore the stresses of guiding a nation for 45 years, and I’m in awe that she lived to be 70 when the average life expectancy was 42 years old. And there was a reason the expectancy was only 42 years; human fragility was far more obvious than it is today when you bring lack of medical advances into the picture. If you asked me if I’d like to go back in time and be one of Elizabeth’s noble courtiers, with all its fascinations, extravagances and intrigues; no thanks. Not without my 21st century hospital down the street. But I sure love to read about it!!!

My recommendation for this book: If you are already familiar with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the basic history surrounding her life, enjoy! If you have a fascination for the life details of people during that period but don’t necessarily care so much as to whether you fully grasp what was going on politically, then go for it. But if you aren’t familiar with Queen Elizabeth’s life and you really want the full experience, I’d say flip through one of those basic fact histories first to get the gist, as this book (though it offers select events to illustrate certain points) will really be most enjoyable if you know all that this woman was really going up against in the world outside.